Republic At Risk: COVID-19 in India

While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted almost every corner of the globe, parts of Asia are still just beginning to see the systemic effects of the pandemic. As the second most populous country in the world, India has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths which magnify current injustices across the country. This blog addresses India’s importance within the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with human rights issues concerning feeble governance, police brutality, migrant displacement, and Islamophobia.

As of late-July, over 1.4 million Indians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 32,000 have died from the virus. India’s western state of Maharashtra is currently the country’s epicenter with over 375,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On the southern coastline, the state of Tamil Nadu has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (210,000+), while the capital territory of Delhi in the northwest has recently exceeded 130,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh has confirmed over 95,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has only confirmed just over 65,000 cases which triggers questions about access to COVID-19 testing and essential resources throughout the country.

A National Lockdown

In late-March, the Indian government issued a nationwide lockdown that lasted two months. Inconveniently, the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants were given less than a 4-hour notice of this initial 3-week lockdown. The effects of this tall order were apparent on day one since so many people throughout the country live on a daily wage or in extreme poverty. As food supply chains became compromised and manufacturing facilities closed, the country’s unemployment rate reached a 30-year low. All the while, facilities such as schools and train coaches have been converted into quarantine centers. These attempts have seemingly delayed the inevitable spike of COVID-19 cases. However, it is speculated that the low number of confirmed cases is the result of low testing rates.

This outcome has been attributed to lax contact tracing, stringent bureaucracy, and inadequate health service coordination, namely in Delhi where cases have recently surged. However, as India reopens, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased. Additionally, the introduction of newly-approved antigen kits have allowed for rapid diagnostic testing, although testing is not to be distributed proportionately. More specifically, family members and neighbors of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 claim they are not being tested. Also, in several instances, the family members of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were not being informed about their loved one’s diagnosis. After much scrutiny, however, local health authorities in Delhi have attempted to pick up the pieces by using surveillance measures such as door-to-door screenings, drones, and police enforcement.

Policing the Police

While the recent murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, India has been confronting its own relationship with police violence. In June, two Tamil Nadu shopkeepers, J Jayaraj and his son Bennicks Immanuel, were arrested for keeping their business open past permitted hours during the national lockdown. They were then tortured while in police custody and died days later in the hospital. Due to this event garnering considerable attention and protesting, six police officers have since been arrested for their deaths. Also, Tamil Nadu police officers with questionable track records will now undergo behavioral correction workshops. However, this incident is no anomaly. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), nine Indians die in judicial or police custody every day. In comparison, official government crime data claims 70 people were killed in Indian police custody in 2018. This striking differential in reported custodial deaths suggests India’s law enforcement entities lack accountability and are riddled with corruption.

Much like the United States, India has a history tainted with police violence that disproportionately affects minority groups, namely people from the lowest Dalit caste, indigenous groups, and Muslims. With no choice but to work during the national lockdown, many of India’s poorest citizens were beaten by police. Videos of these violent acts surfaced across social media. In opposition, there have been over 300 reported incidents of attacks on police officers alone in Maharashtra. These recent events highlight the need for the Indian government to pass anti-torture legislation that curbs police violence. By ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Indian government can help remove the colonial vestiges of power and punishment that have plagued the country for generations.

Migrant Displacement

The sudden announcement of a national lockdown had tremendous repercussions for the tens of thousands of daily-wage migrants throughout India. Overnight, businesses closed and transportation systems suspended throughout the country, placing many migrant workers in precarious economic conditions. Men, women, and children hunkered down in urban centers across the country as they waited for their workplaces to reopen but to no avail. In response, India’s major cities experienced an exodus of migrant workers attempting to return to their home states on foot, many living hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. As thousands trekked home, many died due to dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke, and traffic accidents. Reports of pregnant women delivering, and subsequently carrying, their children in these horrific conditions have also surfaced.

A recent Supreme Court order has urged the well-being of India’s 100 million internal migrant workers affected by the hardships of COVID-19 by requiring the government to register, feed, shelter, and transport them until they return home. However, these efforts are seemingly inadequate because most internal migrant workers have not qualified for these “relief packages”, while those who have qualified are experiencing limited coordination between state governments. All the while, India has ended its national lockdown and many migrant workers are trying to return to their places of employment. Some employers are sponsoring the return of their lost workers, while some must find their own means to return. As such, some states have sought local help to accommodate the loss of migrant workers which places many Indians in even greater economic uncertainty.

Migrant workers walking on the shoulder of a highway during the nighttime.
The Indian Lockdown Migration – IV (PB1_4728). Source: Paramvir Singh Bhogal, Creative Commons.

Pathologizing Islam

COVID-19 in India has contributed to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric that suggests this religious minority group is purposely spreading the virus.  The rumors began after Tablighi Jammat, a Muslim missionary group, held a congregation outside of India and, soon after, many members tested positive for COVID-19 in New Delhi. Videos on WhatsApp and various television channels have proliferated this misinformation to the Indian public alongside the usage of phrases such as “corona jihad” and “corona terrorism”. To make matters worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which is notorious for its Hindu nationalist sentiments, has begun incorporating Tablighi Jamaat-related statistics to its daily COVID-19 briefings. Such rhetoric has influenced a slew of Islamophobic acts such as prohibiting neighborhood entry, restricting sales by street vendors, and even violent attacks.

These recent events fuel an existing fire that posits Muslims as reproducing at a pace to outnumber Hindus and compromising “Mother India”. However, recent efforts between Muslim Indians and allies has been quick to respond to this COVID-19 misinformation because they have been protesting India’s new citizenship law that offers amnesty to various non-Muslim immigrants and a nationwide citizen count that necessitates proof of documentation dating several years back. The BJP has made it apparent that Muslims are not welcome in India and weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic as a part of its Islamophobic campaign. As such, these efforts corner Muslim Indians into political and economic insecurities that pressure apartheid at a time when unity is paramount.

Masked medical professionals walking with a crowd in the background.
coronavirus-india-rep-image-hyd. Source: Anant Singh, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in India

As displayed, India has an array of prevalent human rights issues that have compounded since the arrival of COVID-19. Among the efforts that could protect Indians from these concerns are labor protections, health care reform, civil rights for minority groups, food security, and income equality. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has propagated a narrative of self-reliance that undermines these systemic inequalities. Service provision has highlighted these discrepancies because resources are scarce, and those with power and privilege are placed to the front of the line. In addition, many Indians cannot abide to the recommended sanitation and social distancing measures due to living in poor, dense settlements in the heap summer when water sources are limited.

Although tearing through communities and disrupting daily life in India, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, it is well within the power of Parliament, the media, civil society, and local governments to right these wrongs by ending communal bias and impartiality within state institutions. Addressing these corrupt and oppressive practices will not only remediate the effects of COVID-19 but help shape an equitable future for a country that is rapidly becoming a global super power and expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2027. Real change and equity in the world’s largest democracy could send a much-needed shockwave of justice across the globe.

Double Tragedy

By Grade Ndanu

Two individuals in hazmat suits stand in front of a Kenyan woman as the first cases of Covid-19 are diagnosed
Source: Yahoo Images

As we watch the news and as I write these lines, the novel corona virus epidemic that started in China, has affected more people than the severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Globally on the 30th January 2020 the World Health Organization of the United Nations declared the epidemic a public health emergency of international concern. This defines the outbreak as an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response. Countries and airlines suspended travel from affected areas, which is all the countries to be specific and initiated a comprehensive screening at airports.

Wherever we are in the world, we are all living the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus is a public health challenge for the entire global population. Many countries shut down to prevent the spread of the virus. And it came to that day that students never returned to class, employees are working remotely if they can, cinemas are shut, and shops are closed. Basically everything stopped, maybe it’s because the world may have been caught off guard by the size and ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis.

Me being in a unique family, I will share what we are doing to keep safe from the virus and at the same time busy. First we take all the precautions that we are supposed to. We regularly and thoroughly clean our hands with an alcohol based hand sanitizer or just wash them with clean water and soap. All the surfaces including the floor we clean using soap and jick to kill the germs and any bacteria that may be there.  We also try our best to practice respiratory hygiene where we cover our mouth and nose when we cough or sneeze. Us being divided in groups that we call families, we tend to help and guide the young ones.

In the centre we are girls of different ages which makes three different groups. The least ages is ten and below. They do coloring and drawing almost daily, and my opinion is, they enjoy which makes them happy. The middle group of ages eleven to fourteen.  They usually have their sessions on Thursdays where they are taught about different things for example, last Thursday they were taught about being in a good company, how to stay out of bad company, and how to be a good example. The other group is of ages fifteen and above, and am in that group.  We usually have our meetings every Saturday. In this group we are not taught we learn from each other. We are still young to learn about marriage, but yes that was our last topic. Thanks to our mom who acts as our facilitator who we ask very may questions and on top of she teaches us how to bake every Saturday.

Due to the deadly virus, all countries are under lock-down meaning we are all stuck in quarantine. Home is where everyone should feel safe. Being at home means, above all else, being in a place that is dear to you. It should mean protection. But for many children, adolescents, and women, home is a place of violence and abuse. Girls and young women kept at home are safer from the disease but face increased inter-family tensions and an overload of domestic work. Girls, especially those from marginalized communities and disabilities, may be particularly affected and also cutting them off from essential protection services and social networks.

Economic stress on families due to the outbreak can put children, and in particular girls, at greater risk. Girls who are often considered to be adults in the society, experience from very early age the negative social norms that demand they do what women do when they are considered matured for example, cleaning, cooking and child care. Apart from child labor, there is also sexual abuse that is going on. A lot of rape cases before this pandemic the victims were raped by people who they know and also people who are very close to them. Now, we are all stuck with our families whether good or abusive ones. I am really worried of the girls, boys and women who are stuck with their abusive relatives. Even if there are helplines one can’t ask for help because the abuser may overhear the conversation and he may decide to do worse so that the victim may never open up.

Talking of girls, there are girls who are at a greatly exposed to the societal cultural beliefs and practices. In the urban areas, everything seems to have stopped or controlled right now but in the rural areas everything is normal. No lock-downs or restrictions and even no curfews. Meaning that there are so many girls who are undergoing Female Genital Cut, who are helplessly waiting to undergo the cut. Some parents are giving out their daughters hands for marriage. The parents feel that they are free to do anything with their daughters. When schools were on the girls told the teachers what was going on and that prevented many cases of retrogressive cultural practices. Now there is no school where girls would go to their rescue. Am certain these girls feel abandoned.

Activists, social workers, and with the government should be concerned at the potential rise on domestic and cultural violence during this epidemic. While quarantine measures are necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, they should be implemented in a way that guarantees protection for children and women. Measures should be in place so teachers can stay in contact with their pupils. Risk factors should be identified and taken care off.  should be visits to the communities, homes, and houses particularly where it is suspected that there might be a girl, child, or a woman in danger.

Let us not just worry about our families and friends. Let us also think of those other people that we don’t know who are vulnerable not only to violence and retrogressive cultural practices but also those who sleep hungry because they luck something to eat. As we remember them in our daily prayers lets wash our hands and take all the precautions that we need to be safe.